Renée Fleming settles into a sofa in a backstage office at the Lyric Opera Building. The “people’s diva” is eager to talk about her latest project, one that enables her to reinvent herself yet again, starring in an eagerly awaited revival of one of the gems of recent American musical theatre.
The superstar soprano of opera, concerts, Broadway, and Off-Broadway returns to Chicago this month in the multi-Tony-winning musical The Light in the Piazza, with music and lyrics by Adam Guettel and book by Craig Lucas. The acclaimed musical—staged by the Olivier Award-winning director Daniel Evans—will play the Lyric Opera House for 10 performances December 14–29, in a new production that originated in London in June.
Fleming, who turned 60 in February, earned her Broadway bona fides (along with a Tony nomination) with her eight-month run last year as Nettie Fowler in a much-praised revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. Crucial as that supporting role was to the success of the revival, Margaret Johnson, the character she plays in Light in the Piazza, puts the singer front and center for most of the show. Not only is Margaret a richly nuanced challenge, both musically and dramatically, she is the first mother Fleming has portrayed in a career that encompasses more than 50 of opera’s leading ladies—and what a richly nuanced role it is. And she doesn’t mind admitting she finds playing Margaret a bit daunting.
“I had forgotten how much spoken dialogue there is in this show, and that’s not a skill I’ve practiced much,” says Fleming. “In early rehearsals, I kept thinking, ‘There’s no music!’” Guettel’s gorgeous and subtle score, she quickly came to realize, “is like a river we [actors] come in and out of with our singing.” Once she discovered how much interpretative flexibility the music allows her, the more comfortable she became. “Now,” she adds, “I really enjoy performing the role.”
Based on a novella by the American writer Elizabeth Spencer that has not been out of print since it was published in 1960, The Light in the Piazza sets a bittersweet fable about first love to music as gentle and caressing as the fateful breeze that whisks the young heroine Clara’s hat into the hands of a handsome young Italian, Fabrizio. (It’s the cutest of meet-cute moments.) The setting is sun-drenched Florence in the summer of 1953. Margaret, a well-off, middle-aged matron from Winston-Salem, is showing daughter Clara the sights. When Clara and Fabrizio meet, it’s amore at first blush.
In the process of helping her protected child deal with feelings she hadn’t known before, Margaret must confront her own disappointments in love and life. As the mother of adult daughters Amelia, 26, and Sage, 28, Fleming brings her own maternal experience to her portrayal. “The scene in which Clara says that Fabrizio is her light I look at through the lens of a mother whose children suddenly want to spend more time with their friends than they do with their parents. The hardest part for Margaret is learning how to let go. That was hard for me too, with my own daughters.”
Fleming’s love of jazz, Broadway, indie pop and virtually every vocal style in between has enabled her to shuttle triumphantly among musical genres throughout her multifaceted career. So Guettel’s nuanced lyrics and sophisticated score, brushed as it is with whiffs of Sondheim, ripples of cocktail-lounge jazz, and fleeting operatic strains, are her return-ticket to idioms she has long since made her own. “What I love about Adam’s score is the way it lives between the worlds of classical music and music theatre,” she says, smiling. “I find myself listening to what my colleagues are singing, and thinking, ‘That’s really beautiful!’ ”
Even so, classically trained singers almost never use electronic amplification when performing opera; they don’t have to. Since Fleming and her fellow cast members will be wearing body mics for Light in the Piazza to allow the spoken portions to project in the 3,500-seat Opera House, what sorts of adjustments in vocal production will they have to make? “A mic definitely saves one’s voice—otherwise I would be hesitant to do a show like this for six to eight performances a week,” the soprano replies. “But you have to trust the sound engineers to get it right, and not try to force the acoustics of the room, because the lighter you sing, the better the sound is going to be.”
The microphone, in other words, helps Fleming carry the intimate, conversational tone of the spoken dialogue into her musical numbers without her having to alter her vocal production. An added benefit is that scaling back her sound allows her to tap into different tonal colors. Her blue eyes twinkle at the prospect.
Fleming’s participation came about after her longtime colleague, the impresario and artist manager Matthew Epstein, slipped a bug in the ear of producer John Berry, of the production company Scenario Two. (“If you want to do this show,” she quotes Epstein as saying, “you should ask Renée.”) Fleming had seen the original Broadway production in 2005 and recently discussed the part over dinner with Broadway singer Victoria Clark, the original Margaret Johnson. “There are very few roles for a mother who is funny, but also wrestling with a complex set of issues. This role is one of the few. That interested me immediately,” says Fleming.
A three-day-long meeting in New York in advance of the brief rehearsal period in London—with Guettel and conductor Kimberly Grigsby, who helmed the original mounting of Light in the Piazza at Lincoln Cente—helped her enormously. “The show is complicated,” notes Fleming. “There’s Margaret’s marriage, her flirtation, her relationship with her daughter, her coming to terms with her own issues through Clara’s affair. Her character goes through so much.”
Fleming immersed herself in the score and lyrics last spring while appearing with Ben Whishaw in Norma Jeane Baker of Troy at The Shed in Hudson Yards in New York. “I would spend all day working on Light in the Piazza, then hop on my bike to go to The Shed and immediately shift gears! I was pleased I was able to manage that.”
The performer says she’s confident the show will appeal to “Lyric Opera regulars who want to see something different,” as well as music theatre mavens. “We hope people come out of the theater exclaiming, ‘Wow, I never expected to find that in an opera house!’ ”
Presented by Berry and Anthony Lilley for Scenario Two, The Light in the Piazza is staged by the Olivier Award-winning director Daniel Evans and stars Renee Fleming, Alex Jennings, and Solea Pfeiffer.
See photos Fleming in the London production below: